After first hearing that their house had burned in the conflagration that destroyed 10 of their neighbors' properties, the Keating family learned their home had survived. (Courtesy Keating family)
After first hearing that their house had burned in the conflagration that destroyed 10 of their neighbors' properties, the Keating family learned their home had survived. (Courtesy Keating family)
GATES — Rick and Debra Keating never got the reverse 911 call to evacuate.

Instead, Madeline Keating, a recent Blanchet Catholic High School graduate, got the news and awakened her dad and stepmom after midnight.

They scrambled to get out, taking little more than Bailey, their St. Bernard dog, and Marley the cat.

Rick Keating drove the couple’s Toyota RAV4.

Madeline, in contact via her cellphone, followed close behind in her Toyota Prius.

They were the last ones left in the neighborhood — and their way out was blocked by a downed tree. Rick detoured through a neighbor’s yard.

Thick smoke slowed them as they headed west, out of the Santiam Canyon. Route 22 was blocked, so they snaked east on back ways, houses burning on either side. Flames edged the roads, fingering onto the tarmac.

“The sky kept getting redder and redder,” Rick said. “We stayed on the phone, talking to one another.”

Hours later, they made it to Salem — just 35 miles west of their home. They checked into a motel about 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8.

“We had to evacuate at 1 o’clock this morning,” Rick posted to his Facebook page. “We’re staying in Salem. … The fire was within an eighth of a mile of our house — please pray, pray for us.”

Later that morning they learned their new home, which Rick had partly built himself, was gone.

Labor Day’s historic windstorm

The Keatings had gone to bed Labor Day night like everyone else in western Oregon, feeling varying degrees of alarm over the windstorm, gusting in hot, dry blasts from the east.

The color of the sky, yellow, orangey or red, depending on how close the fires were, colored the stress. Rick Keating reassured himself with commonsensical reflections that the fires weren’t that close and that he would get that call if they were in real danger.

Madeline woke Rick and Debra up with the news that they had to flee after getting a phone call from her mother, who lives in Keizer, telling her that Gates was included in the evacuation zone.

Rick, a photographer, has often shot photos for the Catholic Sentinel newspaper and the Archdiocese of Portland. A faith-filled Catholic, he's a member of the Knights of Columbus and St. Joseph Parish in Salem. Since he and Debra moved into their new home by the Santiam River they’ve attended Mass at St. Catherine of Siena, in the old lumber town of Mill City, when they attend a live Mass.

The pandemic slowed their getting to know the other parishioners at St. Catherine and their new neighbors in Gates, a working-class town (population about 500), on Oregon Route 22 up the Santiam Canyon.

Gates is now mostly gone, as are the towns of Detroit, Talent and Phoenix.

Nearest to Gates — but not frighteningly close —the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires had been burning since Aug. 16. The U.S. Forest Service had closed a handful of campgrounds to keep the public and firefighters safe, but the fires weren’t big or widely known.

The Keatings never imagined either fire could reach their home, nestled in the woods close to the Santiam River. “We had no idea there were fires nearby,” said Keating.

Then came the winds.

According to the Forest Service’s InciWeb, prior to the historic windstorm that arrived in the region on Monday, Sept. 7, the Beachie Creek Fire was estimated to be 469 acres. The fire grew overnight to more than 131,000 acres, fueled by high winds and extremely dry fuels.

Together with the Lionshead fire, 200,000 acres were burning. The two conflagrations would meet each other at Detroit Lake.

Santiam Canyon good Samaritans

By Wednesday, Sept. 9, three brothers, Travis, Jared and Shane Newton, decided they couldn’t just sit and do nothing any longer. “It was Shane’s idea,” said Travis. “He said, ‘What are we doing? We need to be helping people.’

“The people in the Santiam Canyon will always step up and help people in need, no matter which way you lean politically,” Travis said, pointing to the mountains of clothing and food that have appeared at Cascade High School. “It’s hard you have to have this type of tragedy to bring us all together.”

The three, who live in the Stayton/Aumsville area, just east of Salem and west of Gates, got water and food together and set out to help the people they’d known all their lives. Travis has coached basketball in the area for 24 years. He’s a member of the Latter-day Saints community and his brothers are nondenominational Christians.

Jared’s Catholic father-in-law, Mike Kintz, went with them. He had a friend in Gates who feared his home hadn’t survived.

Travis recorded what they found on his phone, posting it to Facebook. “I think this is Jim’s property, and it doesn’t look good,” he said, panning the phone’s camera across burnt orange woods and rubble.

“Oh man,” he said as it became clear there was nothing left but charred ruins.

Out of 11 houses in the neighborhood, three endured.

The Keatings’ home was one of the survivors.

The news that it was gone had been mistaken — well-meaning people had surveyed nearby addresses.

When the Newton brothers came across the Keating house, however, there was fire within an inch of its concrete foundation. “We got the bark chips away,” Travis said. “I think it could have started burning within minutes.”

The men also shoveled dirt onto hotspots that kept bursting into flame. They put out a fire in the tree next to the Keatings’ propane tank.

“I’m borrowing your shovel,” Travis said for his video feed. They toted bucket after bucket of water from a neighbor’s hot tub to douse hotspots.

Travis, videotaping, showed the graduation lawn sign Rick had erected to congratulate her. “The Keating family is a Blanchet family,” he said, giving his phone number. “Anyone who knows them, give them my phone number. Your home is safe, Keatings.”

He ended the video saying someone had just pulled up. “It might be the Keatings.”

The Keatings were humbled. “Everyone was working like it was their house,” said Rick. “We’re so blessed and thankful.”

The Keatings found yet another group of good Samaritans at their home later in the week, again putting out hotspots.

“You’re walking on the ashes, and it’s hot underneath,” Rick said. “We put out some flames ourselves.”

When one flared up in front of them, they called 911. The overtaxed fire department was able to send a truck and douse the property.

“This is the Blessed Mother, this is a miracle,” Rick said of his home’s survival.

They know it could have gone differently. Neighbors, an older couple who lost everything, are staying at the same motel.

Again on Facebook, Rick linked to Travis Newton’s page, illustrating how human hands accomplish the work of angels and Christ.

“Check out this FB video that a fellow posted,” Rick wrote that Wednesday. “Watch and you will learn how our house was saved by an angel of God. Yesterday was the saddest and happiest day of our lives. One big rollercoaster. Our Lady intervened to protect our home from the destructive Gates fire that surrounded our place.”